Tags: Cast of Wonders; Fantasy; Young Adult fiction; James Vachowski; Barry J Northern; The Great Game
Khyber is part of a series of stories called The Great Game. There’s seven in the series and we’ll be running all seven on Cast of Wonders over the coming months, probably once a month. This is our first series; we hope you’ll look forward to it as much as we are!
The Great Game is by James Vachowski. James works as a “quality assurance technician” for airport Duty Free Shops, where he strives to ensure that your next tax-exempt purchase meets or exceeds your high standards. When not living out of a suitcase and hopping between glamorous international terminals, he writes fiction. You can find out more about James at his website or on Twitter, Goodreads or Facebook.
Your narrator is Cast of Wonders’ Editor, Barry J Northern.
Theme music is “Appeal To Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available at MusicAlley.com.
The Great Game, Part 1 — Khyber
by James Vachowski
So it’s a story you want, is it?
Then be gone from here. Stories are but lies, gift-wrapped in sugary coatings that tickle the listener’s ear. If it is stories you want, run along to the lending library with the other children, where you can waste your days reading of wizards and faeries and their ilk.
But if your heart seeks the truth… then I may indeed have a tale for you.
Of course you know that I was in the Great War? Well, those of us fighting, we never thought that someday our actions might be considered great. But then, historians have the luxury of being nearsighted. War is terrible, child. It seems senseless. So many men struggle to understand it, but they cannot. For now, it will suffice you to know that for whatever the reason, in war, men and women do things that they must. There is no more to it than that, but certainly no less.
Thankfully my job kept me away from the ghoulish fronts, as I dealt in information. Today they would call me a spy, but back then my proper title was Messenger. Field Marshals and their Adjutants would not dare to act without first seeking my counsel.
I remember one mission particularly well. The Armies of the Crown had just been ordered west, towards war, leaving behind but a skeleton force in the Indies. The quiet that followed was brief, as the Bengals soon began plotting an uprising. As the fastest runner in the service of the Maharajah, I was chosen to travel to Kabul immediately, to contact the Khan and beg for the help of his armies.
There was no time to waste. I dressed quickly, donning the salwar qameez with a pakol on my head. I laced my lightest sandals snugly, while my men readied a sack of provisions. As the sun rose, I set off at a run towards the peaks of the Karakorum Range.
All day and into the night I ran, over the rolling crests and valleys, until finally I paused to catch my breath at the summit of the Khyber Pass. Before me, so deathly quiet, stood the village of Landi Kotal. Imposing by itself, to be certain, it became even more so when I saw who stood guard within: none other than those legendary Untouchables themselves, the Bandit Children of Karachi.
The Bandit Children were indeed youngsters, but they bore such slight resemblance to you, my child. They were children by virtue of age alone. Urchins born without families and suckled on an infancy of thievery, they were cast out of their packs and into the world of men once they turned eleven.
The Bandit Children spotted me and recognized my mission. The pack held no affection for the Crown, nor anyone or thing else for that matter. They set upon me immediately, their dirty little paws snaking into my pockets, clawing and grasping for whatever they could steal.
I feared for a moment that my time on this mortal plane was over, but just then the morning sun crested over the peaks of the Hindu Kush. By night, the Bandit Children were bloodthirsty beasts, but in the light of day they withered back into sad, pitiful children. While the Untouchables were tearing at their rags and wailing laments towards the Sun, I ran by them and down the Pass in a burst of energy.
As I ran, I feared that my mission had been placed in the gravest jeopardy. Just at that moment, as if I truly needed another obstacle, a huge brown bear burst forth from the woods and charged me! Alas, I had no choice but to kill him with my two hands.
I looked down at the dead behemoth, and inspiration struck. With a cut and a snip, I removed the bear’s skin and wore it as a disguise. I then continued my run along the Pass, with my best effort at mimicking a bear’s shambling gait. Other Bandit Children, entire packs of lost souls, fled in fear from my approach.
I ran on. The day passed. As night fell, I found myself nearing the base of the Khyber Pass, the Torkham Gate in view. A feather of hope rose in my chest, but this fell all too soon when I saw that my path to the Gate was blocked. A lone Bandit Child stood in the road before me. He was slight in stature and unremarkable in appearance, save for the curious fact that he seemed to be made entirely out of wood.
Wood sneered with his oaken mouth. “I am not fooled by your disguise. You are no fierce bear, merely an errand boy of the King’s.” He scoffed. “Give me something to eat, and perhaps I will allow you to live for a few minutes longer before I summon my pack of thieves.”
I must admit, dear child, I was terrified. I dumped out my sack in a panic and set about fixing a meal for him. Wood crossed his twiggy arms and eyed me suspiciously. I cut open a flat piece of bread and stuffed it full with fig leaves, butter, marmalade, porridge, taffy, and honey. Wood snatched the sandwich from my hands and began to chew noisily, ripping off bites and smacking his pulpy lips with the worst manners! Oh, the way he ate! I wagered that he had not had such a fine meal in a long time, if ever at all.
While he chewed with his knotty teeth, I quietly edged further along the path… and took off past him at a run!
Wood was furious at my escape! He tried to shout to his gang of Bandit Children, but the sticky sandwich had glued his mouth shut! I ran through the Gate and down the road just as fast as my legs could carry me, which in those days was quite a pace.
And what of my mission, you ask? Well, I reached Kabul, mustered three companies of the Khan’s dragoons, and returned in force. The Bengals fled at our approach and the uprising was crushed, and just in the nick of time, I might add. I hesitate to use the word ‘hero’, but of course the King himself insisted on presenting me with the Victoria Cross.
Ah, but the road from India to London is a long and dangerous one, my child. And that journey is another tale entirely…